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School-within-a-school: Some parents want out of iGranada's 'blended' program

Cynthia Walker was in a panic. A letter had just arrived from the private school where she'd enrolled her son for ninth grade: his admission had been rescinded.

“I suddenly had to find a place for my son to go to school,” she said. It was late July 2016. School was starting soon.

But Walker had a backup plan. A really good backup plan: Granada Hills Charter High School, one of the most sought-after public high schools in Los Angeles — and normally one of the hardest to get into.

Yet plug the Walkers' Porter Ranch address into a Los Angeles Unified School District website, and it confirms their assigned neighborhood public school is, in fact, Granada.

"If your fallback is Granada Hills Charter High School," she said, "well, that seemed like a pretty good fallback to me — I felt pretty lucky."

With less than a month before school started, Walker went to Granada to fill out the actual enrollment paperwork. She recalled handing the paperwork to a clerk. "And she then said to me, 'Well, we’re full, so he’ll be attending iGranada.'

"And I was shocked. I didn’t know what that means. I said, 'What’s iGranada?'"

The clerk explained iGranada was a program within Granada Hills Charter High — essentially a school-within-a-school. Students come to campus every day, but many of their courses, textbooks and even their teachers of record are online. The model, gaining repute nationally, is called "blended learning."

Walker didn't skip a beat.

"I said to the clerk, 'That is going to be a recipe for disaster.'"

A question of choice

When a parent sends their child to their assigned public school, what sort of education do they have a right to expect? What if the assigned school isn't a good fit? How much can a parent ask that school to change if it isn't?

For years, the answer to these broad questions in Los Angeles has been to create one of the most liquid "school choice" markets in the country: if parents don't want to send their child to their assigned neighborhood school, they can apply to dozens of magnet schools or other specialty public schools within LAUSD or to any one of the 224 tuition-free charter schools run by non-profit organizations with public dollars.

Now, those broad questions are at the heart of a controversy involving one of those charter schools — Granada Hills Charter High. Starting with just a few parent complaints, the matter has now spiraled into a formal dispute between L.A. Unified School District officials and the prestigious charter school.

A sign advertising Granada Hills Charter High School's "iGranada" blended learning program near the school's campus on Devonshire Avenue.
Kyle Stokes/KPCC
A sign advertising Granada Hills Charter High School's "iGranada" blended learning program near the school's campus on Devonshire Avenue.

Granada itself is a product of L.A.'s school choice-centered approach to public education. Granada was once exclusively a traditional neighborhood high school, serving only a portion of the northwest San Fernando Valley. But in 2003, Granada converted to an independent charter school, opening itself to applicants from all over the city. Interested students now come in droves. Last year, there were just 200 openings at Granada — and around 2,500 applicants for Granada's admissions lottery.

Still, Granada Hills Charter High remains a hybrid, part "school-of-choice," part neighborhood school: Granada automatically admits students who live in the school's former attendance boundaries — students like Walker's son.

As a "resident student," he gets to skip the lottery. If Walker enrolled him months earlier, her son likely would even have gotten first choice of an "academic program" — every student in the school chooses one of these courses of study to pursue while at the school; it's a choice akin to picking a major.

But by July, when Walker arrived in the Granada office, the only program with available space was iGranada — the partially virtual, partially traditional "blended learning" program.

Walker argued Granada's explanation — that all other programs were full — doesn't fly. Her son has a documented attention deficit hyperactivity disorder that makes online coursework difficult. Special education laws entitled her son to special services, and essentially, the service she wanted was for Granada to enroll her son in any other program that doesn't rely on online teachers.

Walker isn't the only parent to raise a complaint about iGranada. At least nine parents have sought the help of the officials at the L.A. Unified School District who oversee and regulate charter schools, saying their children deserve access to Granada's traditional, brick-and-mortar classes, according to emails obtained via public records request and provided to KPCC by local public education activist Carl Petersen (who's long been a thorn in Granada's side).

"They look at themselves as a private school," Petersen said of Granada. "'We don’t care we get public money, we're going to do it our way.'"

L.A. Unified has taken these parents' side. In May, school district officials sent a letter to Granada administrators, obtained by KPCC through a separate public records request. In it, district officials said students have "the right to expect equitable access and opportunity to participate in the school’s main 'brick-and-mortar' core instructional program."

"iGranada," the letter continued, "simply cannot and will not meet the needs or serve the interests of many students."

But Granada Hills Charter High School leaders broadly reject this premise. They have contended the point of iGranada — and blended learning general — is to break some of the lecture-style classroom conventions that poorly serve many students in many traditional schools.

“That program is able to serve a variety of learners," said Brian Bauer, Granada's executive director, "and I don’t think there’s anything fundamentally different about the programs we offer."

Bauer suggests L.A. Unified officials are latching onto the parents' complaints about iGranada in order to win unrelated bureaucratic battles against the school. When asked about this claim, L.A. Unified officials declined to be interviewed, saying they were involved in a formal "dispute resolution" procedure with Granada.

But even if Bauer is right, this story is not merely another testament to tense relations between L.A. Unified officials and the charter schools they oversee; it's a story about the role of neighborhood schools, the bounds of school choice and the limits of parents' and students' rights.

Falling behind

By the middle of her son's first semester, Cynthia Walker was certain something was wrong.

Her son was doing fine on his homework — assignments he could take home — but was flunking almost every test or quiz in his online courses. C's and D's began piling up. By the end of first semester, his GPA had dropped below what was required to play sports.

To Walker, it was mounting evidence to confirm her initial suspicion: that her son's ADHD made him a bad fit for iGranada. (KPCC is withholding the child's name at Cynthia Walker's request due to privacy concerns.)

An iGranada student works independently.
Kyle Stokes/KPCC
An iGranada student works independently.

Evaluations from both L.A. Unified educators and a private therapist when her son was in middle school had confirmed the ADHD diagnosis. As the district's evaluator wrote when he was in eighth grade, "attention problems indicate that your son exhibits a tendency to be easily distracted and is unable to concentrate more than momentarily." Her son had been receiving medication.

In that first semester of iGranada, school "drove him up a wall," Walker remembered — and she said the plummeting grades fed her son's anxieties and insecurities.

'"iGranada is really an independent study program," Walker explained. "They sort of move at the pace that they want to move at — which is great for motivated students. But my son's not a motivated student, so that's not great for him because it makes it very easy for him to give in to the frustrations that he feels when he's trying to do this work."

Walker began raising concerns. In April, she attended a meeting with a team of Granada teachers and administrators. Walker's son has an "individual education plan," or "IEP" — a formal document that entitles Walker's son to special education services and spells out goals his teachers should help him meet. This team is charged with monitoring her son's progress toward those goals.

At this meeting, convinced iGranada was at the root of her son's struggles, Walker pushed this team to allow her son to transfer to another Granada program that didn't use online courses. She was rebuffed — apparently because there was no space in other programs.

"They could come up with any other excuse why they think [moving programs] is not appropriate for the child," said Gwen Campbell, a special education consultant who attended this meeting to advocate for the Walkers. "But they wouldn’t even consider that as an option because there was no space."

"The IEP team needs to be able to consider all possible placements," Campbell added. "iGranada is not honoring that."

We don't know how Granada officials recall this meeting; they declined to comment on the specifics of Walker's case. But Brian Bauer, Granada's executive director, said iGranada is appropriate for students with individual education plans.

During the meeting, Walker said Granada officials even offered to place her son in a private school for students in special education. "It almost felt," she said, "like they were trying to get rid of us."

Bauer noted that, in general, offers for a private school placement are not made lightly.

But to Walker, the private school offer felt like overkill. Remember, this is Walker’s home public school. Her son is entitled to accommodations for his ADHD. The accommodation Walker wanted was to move him out of iGranada’s partially online courses — and into more traditional classes, where he might be less distractible.

"I still can’t wrap my head around the notion," Walker said during an interview on July 31, "that a kid who lives within the attendance district of a high school can’t attend their high school."

A happy customer

Seated in an empty classroom with a circle of his peers, junior Sahej Bhasin sang iGranada's praises: "I have actually not done this well in school until I joined iGranada."

Sahej has long known he wanted to attend Granada Hills Charter High School and jumped at the opportunity to enroll in the school's blended learning program.

He itemized the benefits: iGranada freed up his personal time for mentorship. The program distilled a large high school of about 4,700 students into a more intimate community; iGranada enrolls a much smaller group: 450 students.

"It taught me that you need to have independence at some point," he added. "Being in college, you’re not going to have a teacher over your shoulder telling you you’re doing right or wrong."

Jennifer DaCosta, the school administrator in charge of iGranada, came to the school in 2011 after working in L.A. Unified for 14 years. At Granada, she was asked to create a program that would serve students who couldn't always be in a classroom — from students training to be Olympic athletes or working in show business, to children with chronic medical conditions.

"There are some students," DaCosta said, "who just need a different opportunity than the traditional model that's being offered."

But DaCosta doesn't believe in totally online education. "Face-to-face contact has to happen. That's why we want them here everyday."

Cameron Ahern, an "advisor" in the iGranada program, monitors students working independently on core class work.
Kyle Stokes/KPCC
Cameron Ahern, an "advisor" in the iGranada program, monitors students working independently on core class work.

In fact, iGranada students take some classes in person — chemistry, for instance; or physical education. They also have access to electives open to all Granada students, like band or choir.

But iGranada students take most of their core classes and even Advanced Placement courses online, usually under the supervision of adult aides, or "advisors." In these online courses, the student's teacher of record is online; iGranada advisors are not credentialed teachers, but have taken an exam proving their subject matter expertise.

DaCosta acknowledges there are parents or experts who find iGranada's model to be a foreign concept. But she argued that fear of change shouldn't prevent educators from seeking out new ways of teaching that meets students' evolving needs.

"Education changes at the pace of a snail," she said. "and unfortunately our entire nation is a product of that lack of adaptation to what our society is asking of our students by the time they graduate."

An alternative to traditional schools

There's a reason why John Watson studies digital learning: "There are too many students who aren’t being served well by traditional schools."

Watson, a consultant for Evergreen Educational Group, believes some students need access to a range of different instructional models, simply because some students are poor fits for a lecture-style classroom.

"Using technology in this way can result in very positive student outcomes," Watson said.

But Watson said students' choice to be in a blended program is key. If students are not choosing a the program for themselves, he worries that might defeat the purpose of blended learning:

“It provides an alternative for students who feel that they’re not served well in the traditional school," he said. "Therefore, I’d be reluctant to say, ‘Hey, there’s this new thing, now we’re going to force every student into that.’"

Watson hasn’t examined iGranada, but it's easy to hear echoes of Walker's argument here. She and other parents upset about iGranada argue that the program is a bad fit, and that — especially because Granada Hills Charter High is their assigned public school — they deserve to have access to traditional programs.

But Watson also noted the instructional model isn't a magic bullet. There are lackluster public schools operating based on more traditional, classroom lecture-based instructional models; and there are fantastic traditional schools.

With that particular observation, DaCosta agrees.

Imagine, she said, "if you were to walk into a classroom and say, '50-minute lectures don't work for me. You need to figure out something else, and I want a school a choice to put me in a place where they actually do you know project-based work. That's what I want, so find a school that meets my need.'"

DaCosta is essentially inverting Walker's argument in order to underline her own: that perhaps some students have been poorly served by rigid instructional models that have shifted too little as technology has advanced.

"There has to be a combination of everything," she said. "We have to find a balance."

iGranada students working in collaborative groups on an English project.
Kyle Stokes/KPCC
iGranada students working in collaborative groups on an English project.

Resident students

Cynthia Walker knows exactly how far Granada Hills Charter High School's acclaim spreads.

"When my son wants to get together with friends from high school, I can't even tell you how many different weekends I've driven to areas in the San Fernando Valley that are as much as five or 10 miles outside the attendance district for Granada Hills High School," Walker said — sometimes as far as Pacoima, clear across the Valley from the school.

"It's nice to have a cross-section of the community there," she added. "But this is our home and my son should be able to go to have the program he needs."

It's possible, though, that the Walkers' entire story boils down to unfortunate timing.

Granada leaders said families who reside in the school's attendance area — the boundaries of the school before its conversion to a charter — not only get to skip the school's admissions lottery, but get to select their academic program before the lottery is even held in February. Around 2,000 "resident students" expressed interested in priority enrollment last year, said Lori Zaragosa, Granada's administrative director of student services.

And last year, it wasn't until June that iGranada became the only academic program available to these "resident students," Zaragosa said. iGranada is not the program of last resort by design, but simply is less encumbered by the space concerns in the other academic programs.

The explanation struck Walker as less than convincing. She noted at another prestigious conversion charter high school, El Camino Real Charter High School in Woodland Hills, administrators hold open enrollment slots — to the risk of being under-enrolled — to accommodate possible new arrivals over the summer. (Officials at El Camino confirmed this practice.)

In its letter to Granada Hills Charter High School in May, L.A. Unified officials warned that "it is the district's continuing expectation that [Granada] admit and serve any and all resident students who wish to attend the school, regardless of when they seek to enroll."

But executive director Brian Bauer countered that if district officials wants Granada to continue to stand in for a regular neighborhood high school, it needs more support from L.A. Unified: Granada no longer receives the data for incoming middle schoolers to allow them to get a hard count on their resident student enrollment. Unlike a typical neighborhood school, Granada cannot remove students who move out of its attendance area from its rolls.

"We don’t turn away resident students when they enroll," Bauer said. "We may not have the classes they wish. That’s also true in LAUSD."

Again, L.A. Unified officials said they would not comment on Bauer's statements, citing an ongoing dispute resolution process between the district and Granada.

But Bauer suspects iGranada is a red herring and that L.A. Unified is seizing on the complaints like the ones Walker made in order to win an almost completely unrelated argument.

Granada wants to submit an application to begin a building project on the district-owned campus it runs — and they need L.A. Unified officials' permission to access funds they need to move forward. Bauer suspects district officials don't want to give them this permission, and are using the controversy over iGranada as justification for denying them this permission.

The dispute resolution process is still going on, a district spokeswoman said last week.

As for Walker, her son is still enrolled at the school. Since her first interview with KPCC in July, she said she's continued to work with Granada administrators and feels encouraged by recent progress with the school.